Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: The Lavabo to the Preface

As we come to the end of the Offertory, a distinct tone begins to emerge. In the texts there is a growing sense of unworthiness on behalf of the priest and the faithful that they are participating in this event. The Mass is the very Sacrifice of Calvary, yet it is far more than just that. Through the Mass, heaven and earth become united, the covenant with the Father is renewed, and we partake, in our own certain way, in the mystical banquet of the Lamb’s Supper in Heaven. Sinful flesh that we are, we should be feeling a sense of unworthiness.

That sense begins with the Lavabo, which goes as follows:

I will wash my hands among the innocent, and I will compass Thine altar, O Lord. That I may hear the voice of Thy praise, and tell of all Thy wondrous works.

I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of Thy house and the place where Thy glory dwelleth. Take not away my soul, O God, with the wicked: nor my life with bloody men. In whose hands are iniquities, their right hand is filled with gifts.

But as for me I have walked in mine innocence: redeem me, and have mercy on me. My foot hath stood in the direct way; in the churches I will bless Thee, O Lord.
There are a few things to note about this prayer. The Psalm originates in a Psalm of distress. David’s claim of innocence is not a boastful claim. He feels a great moment of distress, and points to the fact that he has looked to please God in all he does. Confident of God’s mercy, he washes his hands amongst the innocent. Likewise the priest and congregation should feel a slight distress based on their current position. We are entering in a very special way into God’s presence. We are about to experience a deeply personal moment beyond those even Moses experienced with God. Our only response is to state we have looked to do God’s will to the best of our ability.

Following the Lavabo there is a final prayer to the Trinity which states:

Receive, O Holy Trinity, this oblation which we make to Thee, in memory of the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and in honour of Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and of these [the relics in the altar] and of all the Saints, that it may avail unto their honour and our salvation, and may they vouchsafe to intercede for us in heaven, whose memory we celebrate on earth. Through the same Christ our Lord.
The sacrifice which is offered is of course first and foremost offered to the Trinity. Yet like all other offerings, the offering is also a commemoration of those who walked before us. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us to honor those who walked before us in the faith. Yet how does honoring a saint give glory to God? Are our Protestant friends correct when they assert the mere suggestion of including honor to the saints in offering to the Trinity is blasphemous, for only the Trinity is worthy of any honor?

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the kind of honor given. No saint in and of themselves is worthy of honor. Not even the Blessed Virgin. Only through Christ can anyone receive any honor or praise. It was only through Christ that the Blessed amongst women was preserved from sin. When we honor the saints, we honor God’s handiwork within them. (Eph 2:10-12) Since those in heaven are “the spirits of just men made perfect”, we ask for their intercession. God stated in the Old Covenant that “if even Samuel and Moses prayed for these people I would not listen” and help that sinful wicked generation. Yet we are Christians redeemed by the blood of the lamb alongside the saints, would not their prayers be of great benefit?

We then come to the Orate Fratres. Unfortunately, the modern understanding of the liturgy in many Churches has really damaged the significance of this prayer. In the extraordinary form, the priest is facing God in the tabernacle and the East (where the Risen Christ will come from) instead of the congregation. When this prayer comes, he turns to face the people, saying:

Brethren, pray that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father almighty:

In the context of the Mass, the priest normally turns to face the people in saluting them or blessing them. Yet this time instead he asks for their prayers. In this statement is a recognition that without their prayers, the priest will struggle going forward. One could further say, without the prayers of those individuals, something is lacking from the Mass. What could possibly be lacking from the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ? The same thing that Paul states was lacking from the Sacrifice of Christ in Colossians 1:24. The sacrifice lacks in the degree of application, since Christ does not save against someone’s own will. Therefore we pray that hearts are turned, and that the Sacrifice of Christ be applied. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Father will accept the sacrifice of the Cross during the Mass. That sacrifice is always before Him. Yet there is a legitimate doubt as to how useful the sacrifice will be for the individual faithful due to lack of faith. That is why in response, we ask that the sacrifice be for “our benefit, and that of all His holy Church.”

What is a beautiful exercise in symbolism loses a lot of significance in the modern liturgical landscape. Since Mass is said facing the people, this is no longer an externally special moment. The appearance is no different than every other moment of the Mass in such a situation. If one needs a reason to return to saying Mass ad orientam, here is a strong one.

After praying what is known as the Secret (one of the propers which is made a final urgent supplication to God), the priest begins the Preface. Unlike previous salutations, the priest says Dominus Vobsicum still facing the altar and the tabernacle. One could say, in a mystical sense, he has begun his transition into acting in persona Christi. Christ acts through Him, so that the identity of the priest becomes less and less important. We are then called to sursum corda, lift up your hearts. Where are we lifting them up to? We lift them up to heaven! At this point in the Mass, we are entering (albeit in an imperfect way) into Heaven, or rather Heaven is coming to us. At this point in the Mass, I am no longer simply assisting at Mass at my local parish. I’ve entered into communion with all the saints and angels. This moment is truly timeless, for it is outside of time. Having entered into this blessed moment, the only acceptable response is thanksgiving towards God.

This understanding is vital for the next part of the Mass. If all of the Mass is holy, the Roman canon is the holy of holies within the Mass.

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